Pubdate: Tue, 30 Dec 2003
Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright: 2003 Globe Newspaper Company
Author: James Carroll
Note: James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
Bookmark: (Incarceration)
Bookmark: (Racial Issues)


THIS HAS BEEN the year of American democracy. The values of this nation 
have never been more dramatically on display before the world. "Freedom" 
has been the watch word, from Operation Iraqi Freedom to the coming Freedom 
Tower at Ground Zero in New York. In a period of enormous stress, America 
has pulled itself together, freshly defined its beliefs, and begun to press 
them on others. Washington aims at nothing less than the propagation of US 
notions of civil order and social justice everywhere. And why shouldn't 
citizens be proud? But this vision throws a shadow. Contradictions of 
American idealism have also been manifest with rare clarity this year -- 
and not only in wars abroad. A signal event took place in Massachusetts as 
the year approached its end. A jury made up of citizens of one of the 
relatively few states that outlaws the death penalty nevertheless imposed 
it in the federal murder case against Gary Lee Sampson, the brutal killer 
of Jonathan Rizzo and Philip McCloskey. As advocates of the death penalty 
hoped, this decision in the heart of a community that has long rejected 
capital punishment -- the last execution in Massachusetts was in 1947 -- 
speeds America's complete return to frontier justice.

Even in a period when the fallibility of the death penalty has been 
repeatedly exposed, roughly two out of three Americans still support it. In 
Texas, George W. Bush personally supervised the executions of 152 people -- 
and is proud of it. That the blood of this slow-motion massacre on the 
president's hands is a political asset says everything about current 
American values. Where once leading Democrats opposed capital punishment, 
now, as the Globe's Brian C. Mooney reports, they (i.e. the Clintons, Gore, 
Dean, Kerry, Lieberman, Edwards, Gephardt, Clark) support it. As the 
world's democracies go in one direction on this question, the United States 
goes in another.

This grisly embrace of death is only part of the year's story of crime and 
punishment, American style. In August, the rapist of children, John J. 
Geoghan, was murdered by a fellow inmate at a prison in Massachusetts. As 
Geoghan's crimes had led to the exposure of the abusive secrets of the 
Catholic Church, his punishment led to revelations of what America's 
"criminal justice system" actually involves. Sadistic treatment by guards 
and a lawless culture in which prisoners are allowed to prey on each other 
- -- are these exceptions or the rule? In America there can be no question of 
an outright acceptance of torture, and US sponsorship of democracy abroad 
insists on that (or did before the war on terrorism). Yet the US prison 
system, with many abusive guards and unchecked sadist-inmates, effectively 
assumes torture as part of punishment. If Geoghan were not notorious, his 
fate would have gone unnoted.

But the year just ending marked other milestones toward a reckoning with 
the real meaning of American democracy. In late October, in a speech in 
Fall River, Robert A. Mulligan, chief administrative judge of 
Massachusetts, noted current characteristics of US criminal justice. The 
American prison population recently went over 2 million for the first time, 
putting the United States ahead of Russia as the world capital of 
incarceration. Add to that number those on parole or probation and the 
total under "correctional" control grows to 7 million. Thirty years ago, 
one in 1,000 Americans was locked up; today, almost five are. In famously 
liberal Massachusetts, the prison population has grown, since 1980, from 
under 6,000 to almost 23,000. In 2003, for the first time, the amount of 
money Massachusetts spent on prisons was more than what it spent on higher 

These statistics accumulate a punishing weight falling more on 
African-American males than anyone else, and from that springs the year's 
fundamental epiphany. Justice? Democracy? In the United States, according 
to Judge Mulligan, one in three African-American males between the ages of 
20 and 30 is "under correctional control." In places like Baltimore and 
Washington, more than half are. The number of African-American men in 
college is less than the number of those under supervision of the courts. 
And why? Such facts reveal far more about the way justice is administered 
in America than about the moral character of any group.

Mulligan, for one, points to the "war on drugs" as key, a war that has seen 
the rate of imprisonment of drug offenders jump by 700 percent since 1980; 
a war that depends on narrowly targeted law enforcement and on mandatory 
prison sentences. In 2002, 80 percent of those receiving such sentences 
were minorities. The war on drugs has been disproportionately a war on 
young black men.

2003. The death penalty set loose. Prison populations setting records. 
Effective torture as part of punishment. A system of racial injustice that 
rivals slavery. American values across the world. Please.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake